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Benedict praised for relaxing laws on "festival food"

Monday, March 14, 2011

(Photo)
Governor Mike Beebe gave State Representative Lori Benedict a ceremonial pen after signing into law a bill she introduced. The law allows individuals to use their home kitchens to prepare some foods to be sold at farmers' markets and festivals. The bill was the first the Fulton County resident proposed after taking office in January.
Fulton County State Representative Lori Benedict is being praised for a bill she introduced to allow some "homemade" food products to be legally sold to the public.

"I can't tell you how many e-mails I have received from people all over the state who are happy about it," said Benedict.

Benedict won the District 82 House seat in November and took office at the first of the year.

The first bill she introduced was aimed at allowing people to bake or cook food in their homes and legally sell it at farmers markets, bake sales and festivals and other special events.

"The current law required all food products sold to the public to be produced in commercial kitchens," said Benedict. "That hurt volunteer fire departments, PTA's, and other groups that use bake sales or sell food at festivals to raise funds."

Benedict said she made the house bill, "An act to exempt Cottage Food Operations," her first priority based on local conflicts between some groups and the Health Department. But, according to Benedict, she quickly found there were similar problems all over the state.

"We had the Amish move in here and people were disappointed last year when the Health Department cut them off from selling pies, fried pies and items like that," said Benedict. "Jeff Jackson, a local health department inspector, told the 4-H it could not sell cupcakes at the fair this year. That was going a little too far."

Theresa Bullock, the state health department's food protection chief, told The News inspectors were faced with enforcing the law, as it was written years ago. To protect the public from food borne illness, the law required permits and use of commercial kitchens, for foods sold to the public.

"Inspectors didn't go out looking for violators but, if they saw a problem, they had to address it," said Bullock.

Bullock added, with the rise in popularity of farmers' markets and the emphasis on "Arkansas grown" products, it was, perhaps, time for a re-examination of the law.

"It is a credit to her (Rep. Benedict) that she contacted us before the session and said, 'Hey, I have an issue,' and we could work with her to put a bill together," said Bullock.

The bill, which quickly passed the House and Senate and has been signed by the Governor, allows bakery products, candy, jams, jellies, sorghum, honey and other specified products to be produced in homes and small business and sold at farmers' markets, county fairs and other special events, without a permit or the use of a commercial kitchen.

The bill does not allow cream pies, canned vegetables or other products which can provide a medium for pathogens and toxins to grow and make people sick.

"I was surprised how cooperative the health department was," said Benedict. "It feels good to know I helped boost income to small farmers all across the state, and was able to make a difference in my first session."

The heath department discussed the new law at a recent Arkansas Farmers' Market Association meeting in Little Rock.

"The reaction was very positive," said Bullock, to the news that issues concerning homemade food sold to the public have been clarified

"But they (farmers' markets) want to do more," Bullock added. "They would like to see home canned vegetables and other food items added to the list of foods that can be legally sold."

According to Bullock, allowing the sale of canned vegetables to the public is more risky. "If the canning process is not done right, botulism can result. It can be deadly."

Bullock asked the Farmers' Market Association to allow the new law to be tested this year by farmers' markets and the health department, before attempting to change it.

Thanks to the new law Rep. Benedict introduced, cupcake lovers can rest assured Fulton County 4-H clubs will be able to sell their cupcakes at this year's county fair, without breaking the law.



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